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Friday, May 11, 2012
Updated: May 14, 1:32 AM ET
Top-10 machine Kuchar cashes in

By Bob Harig
ESPN.com

PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. -- The smile is constant, as if it is surgically planted on his face. Good luck rattling Matt Kuchar, who can find a positive in just about anything on a golf course, where tempers typically thrive.

So there was Kuchar at the TPC Sawgrass on Sunday, grinning from ear to ear, taking in the surroundings, never letting on that this was anything more than a leisurely stroll let alone a tense final round at The Players Championship.

"Yeah, he's smiling all the time," said Kuchar's father, Peter. "But he'll step on your throat."

Well, he might have wanted to step on Kevin Na's throat in the final pairing, but he even resisted that urge, which is likely why Kuchar, 33, won his most significant title at The Players Championship and jumped to No. 5 in the world.

His 2-under-par 70 was enough to overtake the faltering, waggling Na, who is probably still apologizing to somebody, somewhere, for the odd difficulty he has in swinging the golf club.

It can drive his playing partners to distraction, but Kuchar took it all in stride to win for the fourth time in his PGA Tour career by 2 strokes over four players, including Rickie Fowler -- who might have made things much more interesting had he coaxed in a 7-footer for birdie on the final hole.

"I feel like not a whole lot gets under my skin," said Kuchar, who never let on that he all but cringed as Na struggled to a final-round 76. "I'm good about letting things just roll off and not affect me."

Matt Kuchar
Moments after Rickie Fowler birdied No. 17 on Sunday, Matt Kuchar (above) sank this putt on the 16th hole to push his lead back to 3 shots at The Players Championship.

For example: all the talk about Kuchar being a cash machine instead of a winner.

The Players is his fourth victory, but his first came 10 years ago at the Honda Classic and his career has endured a trip back to the Nationwide Tour since then. Another was at a Fall Series event. Even over the past three seasons, when he's been a FedEx Cup factor and a top-10 staple, he has just one win at the 2010 Barclays.

"You can suck it, big guy," Kuchar said with a huge grin when the question came up, knowing that a win at the PGA Tour's most prestigious event and a check for $1.7 million would go a long way.

"I'm really happy with the way my golf career has gone," he said. "I've played some great golf, some consistent golf. I never wanted to be the guy who won once a year and missed 10 cuts a year. … I'm real pleased with the path that my career has gone."

Can it really be 15 years since Kuchar won the U.S. Amateur at Cog Hill? Or 14 years since he played the first two rounds of the Masters with defending champion Tiger Woods, finishing tied for 21st as an amateur? Or doing even better at the U.S. Open, where he tied for 14th?

Peter Kuchar was on the bag as Matt's caddie during those tournaments, and reminded a questioner that they were in the second-to-last group on Saturday at the Olympic Club, where the U.S. Open will again be played this year.

It's been a long journey to this point, with Kuchar winning at tour headquarters in Ponte Vedra Beach, where his parents, including mother Meg, make their home.

"You dream about stuff like this," Peter Kuchar said. "But to do it right here in our hometown and our backyard. … the best thing about it is, every time I drive in here for the rest of my life, I'm going to see his picture [on flag poles that border the entrance to the course]. To me, that gives me chills."

Kuchar was never a lock to win such a big tournament. After his amateur career at Georgia Tech, he briefly flirted with the corporate world before turning back to golf. And there was that demotion to the Nationwide Tour, followed by an introduction to Dallas-based instructor Chris O'Connell, who helped Kuchar develop consistency by taking the timing out of his swing.

There has been steady improvement since first going to work with O'Connell in 2006, including a nice run this year that included a third-place finish at the Masters. He now also leads the PGA Tour with 17 consecutive made cuts.

"He's always smiling," said Zach Johnson, a friend and neighbor in St. Simons Island, Ga., who tied for second. "I don't think he ever takes himself too seriously. I don't think he ever takes anything too seriously. I just think he kind of goes about his ways and has fun with it.

"I say all that, however, he is as gritty a competitor and as fierce a competitor as I've been associated with. His game, it models consistency. It models tenacity when it comes down to finishing the deal, and we've certainly witnessed it this week."

It was no doubt apparent after Fowler made things interesting by birdieing the 16th and 17th holes. When he rolled in the birdie putt on the 17th, Fowler gave a little fist pump as spectators roared.

The entire scene was visible across the lake to Kuchar, who was on the 16th green facing a 15-footer for birdie. And he made it.

"I was pretty excited to stick it right back to Rickie," Kuchar said, that big grin again apparent. "That was pretty awesome."

It gave Kuchar a 3-shot advantage heading to the 17th, which he 3-putted for bogey. But the lead was huge as it allowed him to play the 18th hole knowing that a bogey would win.

"We all kind of knew it was coming," said Kuchar's caddie, Lance Bennett. "A win had to be around the corner at some point."

When it was over, the entire family celebrated on the 18th green -- with Kuchar, wife Sybi along with sons Cameron, 4, and Carson, 2½ -- running onto the green first.

And what was Kuchar doing? Smiling, of course.

Bob Harig covers golf for ESPN.com. He can be reached at BobHarig@gmail.com.